How to overcome the jitters, according to tennis star-turned-golfer Mardy Fish

Mardy Fish hits a shot during the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions in January 2023 in Orlando, Florida.

Here are three ways to fight the first-tee jitters and other nerves, according to tennis star-turned-golfer Mardy Fish.

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They say that golf is 90 percent mental, and that the other 10 percent is mental. That makes it similar to a lot of sports.

Few athletes know this better than Mardy Fish.

During a long and successful professional tennis career, Fish saw the view from the mountaintop (in 2011, he became the No. 1 American in the ATP rankings), but he also suffered from a severe anxiety disorder, a condition that once prompted him to withdraw from a match against Roger Federer in the U.S. Open.

Since retiring from the hardcourt in 2015, Fish, 41, has found a competitive outlet on the course. He’s a regular on the celebrity golf circuit, and one of the former champions in the field this week at the American Century Championship, at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, in Lake Tahoe.

For Fish, playing golf in front of crowds is not as stressful as playing tennis for a living. But it’s plenty angst-inducing.

“I feel the nerves for sure,” Fish says. “I have to find ways to cope with them.”

With practice rounds taking place on Wednesday and Thursday, and the real deal getting underway on Friday, asked Fish to share his most reliable methods for fighting jitters on the course.

Let go of expectations

This is easy to say. And essential to do. “Golf is the craziest game,” Fish says. “You really have no idea what’s going to happen from one round to another, even from one shot to the next.” Deep breaths, please. But no deep thoughts. At least not thoughts about what just happened or what might happen next. “You could play a terrible front nine and then have the best back nine of your life.” Dwelling on the bogey you made on the last hole won’t do you any good. Neither will obsessing about the birdie you want so badly on the next. “You can’t predict what’s coming,” Fish says. “So don’t even try.”

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Cut yourself some lack

“In tennis, there wasn’t a lot of let up,” Fish says. “It was also reactive.” The constant movement called for him to act on instinct, and the action left him little time to think. “In golf, it’s the opposite,” Fish says. “You get a ton of time to think, and that can take you places that aren’t good for your mental state.” The solution? Allow yourself the freedom to let your mind wander. Take in the views. Chat with your playing partner or caddie. When it’s time to play your shot, lock in. Then let go. “In tennis, I was trained to never let my focus waver,” Fish says. “In golf, you’ve got to cut yourself some slack.”

Don’t get caught up in mechanics

At Bel Air Country Club, where he belongs, Fish has played a fair amount with fellow member and TV broadcaster Al Michaels. “Al will come up to you and say, ‘How many swing tips do you want?’” Fish says. Fish wants none of them. Under pressure, it’s easy to start obsessing about mechanics. Pretty soon, you’re falling down the rabbit hole. “My only thought is take it back and hit it,” Fish says. But even one swing thought is probably one too many. Declutter your mind, and let your athletic instincts flow.

Josh Sens Editor

A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.